A revolution in equestrian science is taking place in a small laboratory in Sweden. Jalopnik has always been an advocate for carrying all the right safety equipment while doing the dirtiest shit, so when the people at MIPS asked if I wanted to take a look behind the curtain at how the potentially life-saving sausage is done I jumped at the time. I recently jumped on a Zoom call for a virtual tour of the lab to see how all of the company’s impact-absorbing plain bearings help reduce the brain in a crash. It was as insightful as it was effective, the saying was absolutely intended.
What is MIPS?
The Swedish neuroscience researcher Hans von Holst, according to history, got tired of seeing his patients undergo surgery with severe brain damage even though they were wearing the right head protection equipment in a crash. Throughout his career, he had studied head injuries, but in 1996 he began to shift his focus towards understanding prevention. In collaboration with a researcher at the Swedish Royal Institute, Peter Halldin, von Holst began to study how helmets were designed and constructed to understand how and why helmet-injured head injuries occur.
Okay, so your brain is floating around inside your skull in a bath of cerebrospinal fluid that prevents your gray matter from flopping around. It is a thin natural protective layer to slow down the movement of your brain in relation to your skull. When you hit your head on a metal song, it is what prevents your brain from being damaged. MIPS wanted to add a second layer between your skull and your helmet to do something similar. The researchers worked together to develop a sliding layer that allows 10-15 millimeters of omnidirectional flow on impact.
Traditionally, helmets have been developed with a focus on shock protection. Do not get me wrong, thousands of lives have been saved by helmets, whether they are on motorcycles, in motorsports, on horses, skiing or cycling. This is not to say that we should not continue to try to improve the process and possibly reduce brain damage. According to their research, the first 10 milliseconds of an impact are the most crucial to prevent brain damage, as this is the point when the potential load on your head explodes to over 1500 pounds.
Traditional helmets are tested by dropping them vertically on a flat surface, forcing manufacturers to build helmets to meet that standard. Unfortunately, crashing in the real world is rarely about losing all the weight on top of the helmet in speed. You are much more likely to hit the ground obliquely, which in combination with friction of asphalt generally means that you will get some rotating force on the thinking flesh in your dome.
It took until 2009 for the first helmets to be equipped with what MIPS calls the Brain Protection System, and it was not implemented in motorcycle helmets until 2016. Today, the technology is licensed to more than twenty motorcycle helmet brands and current in dozens of different models.
What’s in the lab?
Oh, what is not in the lab? Elephants, a reserve of gold stones, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Okay, so they do not have everything, but MIPS has everything you need to properly test a helmet in a crash. There are precisely weighted copies of human heads in several sizes, each equipped with extremely sensitive sensors. Helmet and head are inside one of these fantastic release rigs. Each has some high-intensity lights and some extremely fast cameras to observe the fall and impact of the helmet.
Through my digital tour of the website, the MIPS people showed me some of the early test rigs, like a horizontal “crash sledge” that looked like it was cobbled from pieces of a rowing machine and various other exercise equipment. Compared to the advanced multi-axis drip testing machines that the company now uses, it is clear to see how far this process has come in just 25 years.
Data thrown out by these machines is poured in build safer helmets. You do not want to think about crashing, or about what happens to your head when you do, but that’s all these scientists ever do. The fall of the helmet head can be accelerated or slowed down, and the angle of impact can also be changed, as can the position of the head relative to the ground. After several impacts on several prototypical helmets, both with and without the brain protection system installed, the team can analyze data and draw a number of conclusions.
I’m not a scientist, but even I can see the benefit of repeatable lab-created tests before doing any real riding. The fine sensors inside the fake head can recreate data using one finite eelement method model of the human brain, detects movement and sloshing in a realistic pattern that can be visualized with color patterns that define tribal levels. These machines can even be used to reconstruct real-world accidents from high-speed racing movies. It’s pretty tricky stuff.
Are you going to buy it?
Obviously I’m quite aware that MIPS showed me all this impressive to convince me that I have to convince all of you to buy a helmet that uses the technology. I was pretty convinced even before I saw all the test equipment.
I have always been an advocate for wearing the right equipment, but more importantly buying clothes you will actually wear. It is important to buy a good quality helmet with comfortable padding and well-tested impact protection, this is where you start. If the helmet is uncomfortable or snug, riders are less likely to wear it, and all protection is better than nothing. Wearing a helmet, even one without MIPS, helps protect against fractures, epidural hematomas and contusions. Add MIPS BPS to help further protect against concussions, subdural hematomas and diffuse axonal injuries, common in motorcycle accidents.
Based on graphs showed me by MIPS, the system offers minimal improvement of brain protection during a traditional helmet test, where the helmet dropped vertically on a horizontal surface. It’s there, but it’s quite small. The big improvement comes in the rotational impact, which is much more likely in the real world, as we discussed earlier. You can see a decrease in the duration of brain movement as well as a decrease in the rate of movement of the brain. Both are very good things.
There are lots of benefits to buying a helmet with MIPS BPS technology in it.
The main disadvantages of MIPS BPS are cost and weight.
As we all know, weight is a massive enemy of comfort when it comes to helmets. A nice carbon fiber bucket is much nicer to carry for hours at a time than a real lid. That said, I have and often drive with a thick modular Shoei that weighs what feels like several hundred pounds. Adds MIPS seems like a non-issue for me. Especially because the MIPS system is a thin plastic sheet that does not weigh more than a few ounces.
Depending on the brand of helmet you buy, there is a range from minimal cost to zero cost associated with the MIPS package. Bell, for example, offers very few helmets without MIPS. Icon charges $ 330 for an Airflite Jewel as for an Airflite MIPS Jewel. Even for brands that charge ten percent extra for their MIPS helmets, it’s probably worth the extra to help you avoid brain damage.
I’m not going to tell you how to spend your money, but I’m convinced of the MIPS pitch and will upgrade to a MIPS-equipped lid when I buy my next brain bucket. I guess I will not throw out the ones I have, but my Shoei probably just has another riding season in it anyway. If you take out your chips on a five-year-old helmet or something, it’s time to look for something with MIPS. And please, for God’s love, do not buy another matte black helmet. It’s time for that trend to end.